McCaw plays straight bat on Beale talking point

MARC HINTON IN SYDNEY
Last updated 17:44 15/08/2014
Richie McCaw
Reuters
ALL GOOD: All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw is confident the loss of Conrad Smith won't disrupt his side's plans ahead of Saturday's Bledisloe Cup opener.

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Richie McCaw resisted the urge to light the fuse under the Wallabies on the eve of the much anticipated Bledisloe opener, the All Blacks captain refusing to jump into the Kurtley Beale-at-10 debate.

McCaw was asked about the surprise presence of Beale in the first five-eighths, or flyhalf, role for the Wallabies at today's captain's run on a sunny Sydney day, and unlike his coach 24 hours earlier, refused to enter into what's become a lively debate on the issue.

Wallabies coach Ewen McKenzie sprung a major surprise when he picked Beale to start at No 10 ahead of Waratahs team-mate Bernard Foley against the All Blacks in tomorrow night's first Rugby Championship test of the year at Sydney's Olympic Stadium.

Yesterday Steve Hansen said he had been ''dumbfounded'' by the selection, and wandered aloud whether McKenzie had been politically pushed to select the soon-to-be off-contract player, or whether he did not think Foley was up to the challenge in such a big test.

Hansen's words drew varying reactions from the Wallaby camp, with some players laughing them off, others suggesting he had a point and McKenzie himself saying he wouldn't dignify them with a response.

But McCaw was not looking to grab any headlines today at the Olympic Stadium when he played a straight bat when an Australian reporter asked for his thoughts on the presence of Beale in the playmaking role.

''He's playing pretty good rugby really -- I guess he's earned that spot,'' McCaw said in a response pretty typical of his Captain's Run media stand-ups.

''He's played a lot of test rugby now, and that experience at 10 is always there.

''I think he's been playing pretty well lately.''

Certainly nothing too incendiary there.

Nor was there when McCaw was asked about his matchup against Wallabies skipper Michael Hooper at No 7, with the Australian having the better of the 127-test All Black last time they met in the Super Rugby final.

''He's been playing particularly well this year from what I've seen and experienced,'' McCaw said.

''He's got a great understanding of where to be, and most of his actions have quite an impact on the game.

''But we've got to be careful we don't just go chasing each other around. Certainly off the set piece you often come up against each other at breakdown time, either trying to get in there or stopping him getting in there.

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''There's a little bit of that but you can't get too carried away in the one-on-one stuff.''

The All Blacks skipper also cut a relaxed figure on the likely absence of veteran centre Conrad Smith for the test after the 32-year-old dashed back to Wellington today to be with wife Lee-Anne for the earlier-than-anticipated birth of their first child.

Highlanders rookie Malakai Fekitoa takes Smith's place at centre in a late reshuffle, while Crusader Ryan Crotty comes on to the bench.

''It's happened enough times in the past and just look at the last test we played where Conrad broke his thumb ... Malakai was the last guy who played at centre in our last test so him slotting in will be fine,'' he said.

''If you let those things influence what happens on the weekend, you haven't really got your environment set up right. Hopefully everyone's aware of what's going on, has prepared as such and they'll be ready to go.''

McCaw said Smith's absence would not upset the team's defensive plans for the free-running Wallabies.

''What we've done this week, as we do every week, is sort out how we're going to shut them down, and if a guy like Malakai comes in he just needs to fill in that role that Conrad's left.''

Though the All Blacks haven't ruled out Smith jetting back in tomorrow for the match, McCaw admitted they weren't planning on it.

''We just expect that he's not going to be here and, if he comes back and is ready to go, he is one guy that would do that no trouble. I guess if all goes well today ... but I think from our point of view we just expect that he's not going to be here and Malakai will slot in no trouble.''

Wallabies captain Michael Hooper said while Smith was obviously a seasoned veteran in the All Blacks' midfield, Fekitoa had been impressive in his debut Super Rugby campaign.

''Fekitoa had a cracking year with the Highlanders, they're both quality players.

''For us, I guess we understand it's a new player so you've got to try out those areas and see what you can do.''

McCaw said the possibility of notching a record 18th straight test victory had been discussed when the team assembled, but not emphasised since.

''We just want to go out and perform well and if we do that we give ourselves a chance of winning and getting one hand back on the Bledisloe, and those other by-products would be nice.''

- Stuff

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